Determining an Area's Residential or Commercial Real Estate Zoning

It is important when you are purchasing or developing commercial real estate to investigate the area’s residential and/or commercial zoning laws depending upon the type of property you are buying and the intended use. It is your responsibility to determine whether your proposed intended use of the property complies with the area's zoning laws. Your real estate broker and title officer can provide you with some of the necessary documentation, such as title reports and tax records. If you are financing the property, your lender will also require that you provide it with a zoning report, survey and environmental reports, if necessary. Your real estate broker can provide you with referrals of companies that provide these services. As part of your research, you should review the following documents to determine the area's zoning laws:

  • county zoning and tax records
  • deeds
  • title reports and underlying title documents such as declarations and CC&Rs (covenants, conditions and restrictions)
  • surveys
  • zoning reports
  • environmental reports, if necessary

You should also hire a commercial real estate attorney to help you review the documents and to assist you in resolving any zoning issues. 

Zoning Laws 

Most municipalities have residential and commercial real estate zoning laws that are strictly enforced. Zoning laws also cover agricultural property uses. To find out about area zoning laws, you should start with your city or county planning and zoning office. If the intended use documents are not clear, the zoning office can interpret the zoning laws for you. You may want to make your purchase and sale contract contingent upon having the property rezoned. To get the property rezoned or to apply for a variance for your specific intended use of the property, you will need to request a hearing from the local zoning and planning commission office. Real estate developers and builders frequently request zoning hearings.   

At the hearing, you should bring your team of architects, zoning experts, your attorney and other team members to help support your request.  Neighbors will also be given an opportunity to speak at the hearing and voice their opinions in support of or against your request. Once the board hears your argument and opposing views from any neighbors or businesses in the area, they will make a ruling on whether to approve your request. If you are unsuccessful in getting your request approved, you can then exercise your contract contingency right to cancel the contract.   

Types of property included in residential zoning laws: 

  • single-family homes
  • multi-family homes (apartments, condos, townhouses)
  • home businesses

Types of property included in commercial zoning laws: 

  • office buildings
  • industrial buildings
  • retail complexes, shopping centers
  • mixed-use buildings
  • other commercial properties 

Types of property included in agricultural zoning laws:  

  • land associated with farming and agriculture 
  • livestock

Hire a Zoning and Land Use Attorney 

It’s a good idea to hire a zoning and land use attorney to help you determine the zoning laws regarding the property you are intending to purchase and/or develop. The attorney can review underlying title documents, deed use restrictions and survey and zoning reports to determine the zoning and land use of the property, as well as environmental reports. The attorney can also represent you at a zoning hearing and help you obtain a zoning variance, as well as assist you with negotiations with the seller of the property to resolve zoning issues and other related matters.

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